- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Greatest Show on Earth has been given a makeover.

When the 136th edition of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus opened in January, it had a completely new look — from the stage (no more three rings) to the costumes.

It had been 50 years since major changes had been made to the show, says Kenneth Feld, owner of Ringling Bros. The previous changes were made when Mr. Feld’s father, Irvin, moved the circus from traveling tents to indoor arenas.

“We do a lot of market research, and people today — well, their lives are three-ring circuses,” Mr. Feld says. “People wanted more focused, interactive entertainment. They want something they can’t see anywhere else. So, the thought was: Let’s re-imagine the circus.”

The team of brainstormers included production designer Robert Brill, who staged Broadway’s revival of “Cabaret” at the former Studio 54 disco, and costume designer Colleen Atwood, whose credits include the films “Chicago,” “Lemony Snicket’s a Series of Unfortunate Events” and “Memoirs of a Geisha.” Bradley Zweig is the writer; he’s a veteran of children’s programming, including work seen on Nickelodeon, National Geographic and the Disney Channel.

The idea of weaving a story that linked all the acts came from director Shanda Sawyer.

In the new version, the audience experiences circus life through the eyes of an average American “family” who just happen to be actors, Mr. Feld says. By the end of the show, the mom is a glamorous trapeze artist, the dad is a ringmaster, the teenage daughter a circus dancer and the young son a foot-juggler.

There also are plenty of opportunities for audience participation.

The first person the audience sees is Jennifer Fuentes, a former “American Idol” finalist, who fills the traditional ringmaster role. She wears a red-and-white-striped strapless dress with blue sequins that fans out into a semicircle, mimicking the old-fashioned circus tent.

“I’ve taken a nod to the traditional school of circus design that I embraced when I went into the archives,” Miss Atwood says, “but I’ve given everything modern twists. I’ve lightened everything up. The vintage costumes were fantastic but heavy and cumbersome. I wanted to give them air.”

She adds: “The costumes have a lot of needs. They do have to be able to move — but I did ‘Chicago’ and ‘Planet of the Apes,’ so I understand extreme movement in costumes pretty well. They also need longevity. These costumes have to hold up under a lot of wear and tear.”

There are 380 costumes, many more than in a typical theatrical production.

Some of Miss Fuentes’ costumes are sexier than a circus-goer might expect initially, but nothing is risque, Miss Atwood says. “The thing that’s interesting about the circus is that it’s family entertainment. The costumes are alluring but chaste at the same time. There’s a lot of sweetness to the design.”

There also are touches of street style, including clown overalls with a more hip-hop silhouette, Converse sneakers for hat-jugglers and tiered miniskirts for some of the dancers. “This will be more in tune with today’s eye,” she says.

Because this version of the circus has more of a story than ever before, this is the first time Ringling Bros. really thought about costumes making sense for characters and how they would fit into the big picture, Mr. Feld says.

For example, horseback riders are a running theme throughout the show. When they appear, they’re in a precision drill wearing regal red, black and green coats with gold trim. On the next outing, they’re doing Roman-style riding with coats off instead wearing capes that blow in the wind.

The third time out, the riders are doing acrobatics, wearing just gold vests and black pants — no shirts. “You see what their bodies are about and what incredibly fit people they are,” Mr. Feld says.

Nicole Feld, Mr. Feld’s daughter and co-producer, explains that the visuals evolve as the show goes on, always maintaining enough of the Ringling Bros. stamp to be recognizable.

“We open with a look of retro chic. It’s like putting on something vintage that someone wore in the ‘60s or ‘70s that’s still hip to wear today,” she says. By the time of the first act’s finale, however, there’s a much sleeker style, embodied by the flamethrowers, who wear orange, purple and bronzes.

“Now was the time for change because we listened to our audience,” Mr. Feld says, “and we now can’t wait 50 years to change the show again. It might have to be every year. We want it to be totally unexpected but retain the traditions: elephants, clowns and death-defying acts.”

Not all audiences will see this revamped 136th edition this year. Ringling Bros. has three touring units moving across the country at once. The blue tour is the newest. The red and gold tours likely will get their major overhauls next year. The red tour will be in the Washington area through April 16.

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